Will Research Bans Hurt Bio-Med

October 19, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Work continues on developing the bio-medical industry across Michigan, despite a state ban on cloning and a stiff restriction on stem cell research.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm and state lawmakers increased their funding to the Life Sciences Corridor for the fiscal year to $30 million, doubling the $15 million they awarded last year.

"I'm comfortable with our growth and development. We are rapidly growing and we can compete in life sciences on an international basis," said Michael Witt, executive director of MichBio, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to grow the industry in the state.

"And the things that are going on in Grand Rapids are spectacular. I am so impressed with the rapid growth and inroads the Van Andel Institute has made. Van Andel is going far quicker than I thought it would," he added, while noting much local progress was also being made in the city's SmartZone, at GrandValleyStateUniversity and at Medtronics.

Still, many industry observers and insiders feel the best path to medical accomplishments and commercial success runs through a certain type of stem cell research.

"As much as we might wish it to be otherwise, no non-embryonic sources of stem cells — not stem cells from cord blood or from any 'adult' sources — have been shown to have anything like the potential to lead us to viable treatments for such diseases as juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's and spinal cord injury that stem cells derived from very early embryos do," wrote Ruth Faden, Wagley professor of biomedical ethics at John Hopkins University, and John Gearhart, C. Michael Armstrong professor at John Hopkins Medicine, in the Washington Post.

"The science is unequivocal: Access to embryonic stem cell lines is essential to rapid progress in stem cell research," added Faden and Gearhart in their Aug. 23 essay on the politics of medical research.

The issue, however, isn't as clear in Michigan. Lawmakers amended the Public Health Code in 1998 to institute a ban on human cloning that went into effect the following year. Legislators also placed a strict limit on stem cell research.

"The state of Michigan is, by my count, about one of 10 states that have gone beyond what the federal government has done and flatly prohibited all research using harvested stem cells from embryos and the like," said Devin Schindler, chairman of the Health Care Practice Group at Warner Norcross and Judd.

"This goes further than what the Feds did because it bans private entities that are privately owned — no connections to state funds or federal funds — from harvesting stem cells from any kind of embryo or neonate," he added.

Research entities across the state can use cells from adult bone marrow in their tests, as these aren't considered "live" cells. But if a firm uses embryonic cells that were harvested in Michigan, the company could be charged with a felony.

"What we have here is you can't use a live human embryo for non-therapeutic research, which means, among other things, you can't harvest the stem cells from a human embryo, fetus or neonate because when the cells are harvested, by definition, the cell divisions no longer occur and the entity dies," said Schindler.

State law, though, doesn't stop a company from importing embryonic cells into Michigan for research — at least, not yet. A bill was introduced last year to keep that from happening, but action hasn't been taken on it.

"Under the current law you could probably import live stem cells, no matter where these were harvested from," said Schindler.

But even if a firm engages in embryonic stem cell research with imported tissue, it can't take advantage of the property tax breaks that have been put in place for the high-tech and bio-med industries as an incentive to lure these businesses to Michigan.

An amendment tacked on to the General Property Tax Act earlier this year defines what the state considers to qualify as biotechnology, and lawmakers excluded companies that clone and perform embryonic stem cell research from that definition. When they did that, they excluded those firms from the biotech tax exemptions, as well, in light of the competition the state faces in this field.

A spokesperson for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., which is responsible for promoting the state to the biotech industry, told the Business Journal that they "chose not to comment" on whether the limit placed on stem cell research would hurt their effort to lure bio-med investment and companies here.

But Witt said two noted researchers at the University of Michigan and MichiganStateUniversity felt that not being able to use embryonic tissue would hold the state back from being a leader in the field. Without saying whether he felt the ban was right or wrong, Witt did say he believes the state can still have commercial success in the bio-med business, even with the restrictions that other states don't have.

"How much of a difference this topic makes to the Michigan economy is probably not a substantial difference," he said. "Intellectually, by not pursuing embryonic stem cell research opportunities, there isn't a way to speculate what we could come up with if we were doing federally funded research in that area. It's pure guesswork.

"What we are seeing is a lot of interesting work with adult stem cells that I don't think people expected. It is leading to unexpected applications and possibilities that we may not have seen had we taken the less ethical route. We're driving research based on our view of life here in Michigan."    

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